Conservation Framing for Antique Documents: 5 Questions to Consider

A few years ago I bought my husband an 18th century map of Hungary as a birthday present. He may not gush over mahogany furniture like I do, but he does share my love of history and maps. Born in Budapest, he takes a particular interest in eastern Europe.

Recently, he expressed a desire to have the map framed professionally, so he could enjoy it more by hanging it on the wall. We got in contact with a serious antique map collector who pointed us to the framing specialist he entrusts with his own collection.

We knew that a professional conservation framing job would not be an inexpensive undertaking. But despite feeling prepared, we were utterly struck with sticker shock when the cost estimate came out to something like three times what I paid for the map itself!

My husband was initially skeptical, and immediately started considering ways to cut costs. The idea of paying more for the framing than the object seemed to him counterintuitive. But might it still be the right course of action? Ultimately I think there is no one answer to this question. Rather, it’s a personal decision with many angles. Here are some of the questions we asked ourselves, and that you may find helpful to reference in a similar situation:

  1. Does the item have monetary value?   This is the obvious one. If you’ve invested a significant amount of money in an antique document, then it will certainly make sense to spend a bit more to protect it. If, on the other hand, it’s not worth much, why is that the case? Perhaps because of limited interest among collectors, or because similar items can be found in relative abundance in the current market? Consider that interests change over time, and that if everyone in your shoes decided conservation wasn’t worth the investment, would there still be a relative abundance in fifty years? A hundred? Obviously you should net depend on increased value in your object; these thought experiments are speculative at best. But there are other important reasons to preserve something than just its current sticker price…
  2. Does the item have sentimental value?   A family heirloom (or a gift from your wife!) may be worth a great deal more to you than its cash value suggests. An expensive framing job may seem perfectly logical if you decide that the item in question is, as we say, “priceless.”
  3. Will you enjoy it for years to come?   It may seem expensive to properly frame it today, but if you plan on enjoying the finished framed artifact for many years, it might be worth the extra initial investment. If you cut corners now, you may wind up paying more in the end when you decide to “do it right” sometime down the line. Or worse, poor quality framing materials may damage the item in the long term, and if it continues to be a treasured object, you’ll regret not investing in its preservation.
  4. Is it worth preserving for the future?   This is a question that the antiques enthusiast asks herself. Caring for an object for reasons beyond its cash equivalent requires an appreciation of history, craftsmanship, connoisseurship, and preservation. Going back to an earlier point, consider what would happen if all these decisions were made by monetary considerations alone. Since objects of history cannot be replaced, if no one in possession of such things makes the investment to preserve them, soon they will be lost to the ravages of time. Ask yourself if the object is something you’d like your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to experience. Or if historians in the next century would be interested in examining it.
  5. What can you realistically afford?   The answer to this question usually becomes the limiting factor in any decision. If you can’t afford to invest in conservation framing right now, but you are concerned about preservation, the best option may be to simply place it in an archival quality folder or box and put it away in a safe, dry, and dark place until you can.

Truthfully, if museums were concerned only with preservation, all documents and art would be safely stored away in dark, climate-controlled warehouses, not framed and hung on the gallery walls. But museum curators have to weigh preservation considerations against the museum’s mission to share their objects with the public for education and enjoyment. Likewise, hanging your antique on the wall will almost certainly bring you more enjoyment than putting it away in safe storage. To decide how much protection to provide while enjoying your collection, you’ll have to be your own curator.

map of hungary conservation framed

Ultimately, we decided to go ahead with the professional (and pricey) conservation framing for the Hungary map. The framer did a phenomenal job, and we don’t regret the investment. But as we’ve started to collect additional antique maps and prints recently, I began to wonder if conservation framing was something I could learn to do myself—at a much lower cost.

Stay tuned for the next post, where I’ll share the results of my research and practice with conservation framing at home. I’ll show you a step-by-step DIY approach with professional quality results.

Comments

  1. Aghavni says

    The map looks great! I love the frame! We have a copper world map that I want to eventually get a better frame for. Would you mind sharing the frame specialist’s information?

    I love the blog!

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